By Prachi Laddha, Consultant
The world knows that Caste Discrimination is one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination in the Indian subcontinent, the brunt of which is, in the highest proportion, borne by “Dalits” – a name for people belonging to the lowest caste in India, characterised as the “untouchables”.
According to a 2007 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the treatment of Dalits has been like a “hidden apartheid” and they “endure segregation in housing, schools, and access to public services”. Dalits are also very often exposed to violence. The 2000 report by National Crime Records Bureau reports 25,455 crimes against Dalits every year including 2 Dalits assaulted every hour, 3 Dalit women raped, 2 Dalits murdered, and 2 Dalit homes set on fire every day. Of course, these are only the crimes that are reported!
Does the situation sound familiar? This casteism has parallels in the racism faced in the West – even though race prejudice in the West and the caste “hierarchy” in the Indian subcontinent have different basis, there are obvious similarities. India’s systemic discrimination against Dalits and other minorities, its extreme economic inequality, and the police’s violent and often illegal repression of those already at the receiving end of the caste-class order, seem to mirror the racial atrocities in Western countries. In fact, this is the why the Black Lives Matter movement in America spoke to many Indians.
And therefore Dalit History Month, celebrated in India in April every year since 2015 was originally inspired by Black History Month celebrated in the United States. The need for Dalit History Month was felt the same way as the need historian Carter G Woodson felt for the Negro History Week in 1926: to reclaim the agency of a mass of people who have historically remained peripheral in the consciousness of the academia and the state, and to bring forth their stories of resistance, resilience and heroism.
Why Dalit History Month (DHM)
- Dalit history is the alternative history to Brahminism (the Brahmins sit in the top-tier of Hinduism’s caste system) and is a tradition that has caste, gender equity as well as a commitment to rationalism and critical inquiry.
- DHM celebrates resistance – it celebrates people on the frontlines of change; powerful and uncompromising caste abolitionists who fought Dalit violence in even more difficult times.
- DHM aims to reclaim the agency of people historically side-lined in both academia and the state. Contributions of Dalits to various spheres of life have been erased in the past, and so DHM is rewriting Indian history to include the immense, yet invisible, contributions made to it by Dalits.
- DHM hopes to refocus the world’s attention on the experiences of the community – through storytelling and sharing lived experiences and anecdotes, among other things – and hope to end caste apartheid, by dismantling age-old perceptions of caste.
Dalits comprise 25% of the Indian population and 5% of world’s population, and they face ongoing segregation in schools and restaurants, police violence, sexual violence, and even lack of access to drinking water and other basic amenities. Even while looking at the political representation, while entry is ensured for Dalit and tribal bureaucrats in the system through reservation, they continue to face discrimination within the system, which remains dominated by upper castes at the decision-making level. It is also extremely shameful to know that casteism exists in Indian communities and Indian-origin global companies in the US and other countries too. For example, in June last year, California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing launched a lawsuit against the tech company Cisco for caste-based discrimination toward an Indian American engineer who claims he was harassed by two co-workers and faced retaliation after complaining to the company.
This past year especially is a good moment to challenge the narrative in India and talk about the age-old repression of Dalits, which is visible even during the COVID-19 pandemic with discrimination denying people aid.
In India, caste is a power structure that enables suppression and exploitation and hinders equality, social justice and humanitarianism to flourish. Dalit History Month provides an opportunity to discuss in public spaces the everyday violence that Dalits face and resist, the history that seems to have been erased, and the representation in society, politics and business that remains to be attained.
It is important for us to think about what we’re doing each day to create a society without casteism – we must all develop habits that actively work against this structure in order to weaken its hold on organisational and wider societal culture. Actively educate yourself and others on casteism, be deliberate in changing your wrong behaviours, but most importantly, be kind. And work on this not today, but every day.
Change will only come as a result of multiple small actions that you take every day.
References and Further readings:
Join the conversation at #Dalithistorymonth on Facebook, twitter, and your communities.
Photo from http://www.tiki-toki.com/timeline/entry/423929/Dalit-History-Month
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